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Fueling Alternative Energy in Haiti

The soaring price of oil is creating even greater pressure for energy companies and researchers to develop biofuels and other alternatives to take its place. The Caribbean nation of Haiti is looking to a small shrub called jatropha to cut its reliance on oil and charcoal, and to expand economic opportunities to poor communities. The efforts already are drawing support from Brazil and the United States for developing clean and renewable fuel supplies.

Whether it is corn in the United States or sugar in Brazil, energy companies are looking to farmers to produce the new generation of raw material for fuels to power cars, generators and other machines.

In Haiti, the hope is centered on a native plant called jatropha curcas, which bears oily seeds that can be crushed and processed to produce diesel fuel for generators or vehicles. Experts say jatropha is cheaper to grow than some other biofuel crops and it produces more oil than soy and castor. The hardy shrub grows in a variety of climates and already has helped launch biodiesel programs in India, Mali, Indonesia and elsewhere.

Kathleen Robbins, who promotes non-profit development programs in Haiti, says jatropha could work in the Caribbean nation, where two-thirds of the population relies on farming. She says jatropha could provide a cheap source of fuel for rural areas that are cut off from the nation's electricity grid. "It has the potential because it can be grown virtually anywhere, of creating a really positive economic impact in rural Haiti," says Robbins.

Jatropha also provides a unique opportunity for Haiti, where soaring demand for charcoal from timber has lead to deforestation of much of the nation's hilly terrain. Advocates of jatropha say it can thrive in the denuded land and its small branches cannot be used for charcoal.

A Difficult Transition

The challenge now is convincing farmers of the promise of jatropha, when planting the seed oil crop could mean displacing traditional food crops that are the main source of cash for many peasants.

Georges Valme, a Haitian-born American, says farmers should not have to make that choice. With a small personal investment, Valme has been helping to build nurseries in Haiti to produce thousands of jatropha seedlings as well as avocado, tomato and other food crops. Valme says farmers will need to plant both in their fields, because jatropha seedlings do not mature for at least three years. "These are cash crops because the Haitian peasant cannot wait for three years or five years any more. They need it now, and I need to plant crops that will carry a profit in the next six months," says Valme.

The promise of jatropha in Haiti is drawing attention from Brazil, which has emerged as a world leader in biofuels thanks to its sugar-based ethanol program for automobiles. A representative of Brazilian jatropha growers met Haitian businessmen in Port au-Prince recently and agreed to fund a pilot jatropha program near the capital.

Johanna Mendelson Forman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington says Brazil's expertise in biofuels is crucial to the future of the Haitian program. "What's exciting about the relationship with Brazil is that we go beyond just appropriate technology to more sophisticated production standards," says Forman. "And the Brazilians are already moving toward standards for automobile and diesel engine use."

Forman says the jatropha partnership is one of the first programs to take shape under an agreement that Brazil and the United States signed in March to promote alternative energy efforts in the Caribbean and Central America. President Bush says the deal aims to help partner nations reduce their dependence on foreign oil and develop domestic sources of energy.

A Need for Reform

In addition to providing technology, development specialist Kathleen Robbins says international partners can advise Haiti's government on making reforms to encourage future development. Robbins says Haitian officials must address issues such as land rights, tax structures and incentives to ensure that jatropha can benefit poor communities who need help the most. "That's the biggest challenge -- learning from what has already been done. The path has been blazed by Brazil. The question is: Is there the executive and legislative desire [in Haiti] to follow that path?"

Investor Georges Valme says he worries about the long-term commitment of international partners because of Haiti's history of political instability and weak legal structures. He says one of the biggest concerns is land rights, which can be difficult to prove and enforce. To protect his efforts, Valme has teamed with the Eben Ezer religious mission, which is developing a stretch of land near the city of Gonaives. "Now these people represent about 350 churches in Haiti, which means to me they have a huge amount of land available," says Valme. "They might be scattered, but they are there. And they are legal and they pay their taxes. They have a structure."

Valme says Eben Ezer's farmers plan to being planting jatropha this month on some of the more than six thousand hectares of land the mission owns.

Eben Ezer's leader, Reverend Michel Morisset, says his group has vast experience in farming as well as managing a broad network of social services. But he adds that the contribution of Haitian expatriates like Valme is crucial to Haiti's long-term development needs. "In Haiti, the biggest hurdle you have when you want to do a project large-scale is to find the cooperation of the people in the area."

Johanna Mendelson Forman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says she sees the benefits of jatropha going beyond mere energy needs, to help create more jobs in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. "It's very labor intensive to pick this stuff and crush it. And when you have a place where there is no work, giving someone a crop that not only has a marketable value, but also creates jobs is a huge contribution to the economic stability of the place," says Forman.

Renewable energy may not be a novel idea in a poor country like Haiti, which has relied on charcoal from timber for generations. For jatropha to succeed, however, advocates say Haitians must learn new lessons that will ensure social, economic and environmental improvements.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.